7 MIN READ
This Woman Turned Her Selfies Into a Million-Dollar Online Fitness Empire
When Zoe Rodriguez was a junior in college, her mom cosigned on her first apartment. Rodriguez worked part-time in retail, and her mother said she would help pay the rent to help her.
But Rodriguez was also working on an idea: An easy-to-use fitness program for women who wanted to build muscle without spending all day at an expensive gym.
Then she launched it, using the power of social media to turn fans into customers.
“A few months later, I told her how much money I had in my bank account,” Rodriguez remembers. “She told me I was lying and made me show her. I had a huge chunk of money.”
Rodriguez had brought in so much revenue from selling her workout ebooks that her mom made her talk to a financial advisor to figure out how to manage her cash, in case her earnings were a temporary fluke.
Just a few years later, Rodriguez’s online shop offers 14 fitness programs, private and group coaching, workout challenges and branded merchandise.
But when we visit her gym, ZBody Strength & Fitness in Jupiter, Florida, it’s nearly empty.
Rodriguez, now 25, doesn’t look concerned at all. It’s all part of her plan.
How a Long-Distance Runner Got Famous for Her Butt
Rodriguez was a lanky long-distance runner at Florida Atlantic University when she discovered weightlifting through her exercise science major. She started posting pictures of her progress on Instagram, slowly adding muscle to her lean figure.
Her booty didn’t hurt.
“I guess it’s normal to post your butt on Instagram now,” she smiles, recalling rude comments she used to get online, claiming she was just posting her progress photos for attention. But women who wanted to tone themselves into a bigger booty started asking her how she did it.
Rodriguez was still a student when she released her first online fitness program, focused on building strong gluteal muscles, in 2013. As her Instagram following grew, strong sales followed.
Now she sells ebook guides to weight training that targets the back, legs, arms and abs, as well as the famed booty.
But it’s been a long road to refine her programs and their branding. “Mine looked awful,” she recalls her first ebook, admitting she saved diagrams from online sources to illustrate her first ebook. “People would call me like, ‘You know that’s illegal, right?’ I had no idea. I was so embarrassed for myself back then.”
She learned how to format better ebooks and taught herself Final Cut Pro to edit video tutorials. All the while, she’s focused on the growth of her business, but at the same time she’s committed to keeping her products affordable.
“There are so many overpriced ebooks,” she says. Averaging $20 per title, each provides a training schedule with recommended routines. But instead of simply featuring diagrams of how you’re supposed to look as you work your body into a sweat, Rodriguez’ ebooks contain links to private YouTube video tutorials. Rodriguez herself is your guide through the how-tos, providing frequent reminders for correcting common form problems.
Her online sales can swing anywhere between $20,000 and $90,000 per month. More than 100,000 copies of her guides are floating around in the digital universe, used by customers ranging from women trying to bounce back into shape after pregnancy to those who simply want to get fit in the privacy of their own homes.
“Fitness these days is so overpriced,” Rodriguez says. “A lot of people who buy the programs are moms. I just don’t feel a need to overprice them.”
Though she can quote her best revenue year without blinking — a nice $1.5 million — Rodriguez is still soft-spoken and level-headed. She bought her first house last year, a tidy ranch with plenty of room for her dogs, Lucy and Rocky, to play.
That financial advisor her mom forced her to see? Rodriguez was able to put much of her initial earnings into savings, and later into investments. She admits she’s not a big spender, so Rodriguez is putting money back into her business to grow it as the social-media landscape changes.
ZBody Versus the Gym
Last year, Rodriguez opened a gym in a quiet office park in Jupiter. While the “trial brick-and-mortar” is an additional income stream, it serves another important purpose for her business: it’s a place to create content.
Rodriguez could tape workout tutorials for her ebooks and social media accounts at home, or by renting time at someone else’s gym. But at ZBody Strength & Fitness, she has ample open space — and brand-new equipment — to work with.
A small group of personal trainers rent the space to train their clients, and Rodriguez — herself an ISSA-certified personal trainer, though she's not taking clients right now — has considered offering memberships to training clients so they can visit workouts between sessions.
However, she knows the profit margin for a physical gym is much lower than the 60-70% she strives to maintain for her digital products.
“If I don’t love it, I won’t continue,” she says of the gym space, which she has leased for two more years. “I love being here, but it’s not the end of the world.”
She knows that if she ever wants to move to a new location, she can take the business with her.
Spending Money to Make Money
You may spot Rodriguez at her gym working out or designing programs, but she’s also hired people to support her behind the scenes.
“I used to manually send out each workout someone would buy,” she says. Then, she implemented a system to make sending purchases easier. For two years, she has outsourced customer service to someone who puts in about 10 hours a week answering emails.
Paying someone else to be patient frees up Rodriguez to focus on other aspects of the business instead of repeatedly reassuring customers that they will not receive a workout DVD in the mail. “Who even makes DVDs anymore?” she laughs, shaking her head.
Rodriguez also works with a public relations and collaborations manager who also helps her plan occasional events.
Marketing has been challenging for ZBody since Instagram started shaking up its chronological timeline. “I hit Instagram before it got big,” she says. “Now there are so many online trainers. It’s a lot harder now to convince people they should choose you as a trainer.”
Rodriguez’s longevity on platforms like Instagram helps drive home to potential fans that she’s a reliable source for fitness guidance. But it’s harder than before to grow a business on the platform. “You almost have to trick people into look at your posts,” she says of Instagram’s new algorithms. “It’s not free advertising anymore.”
She has also struggled over the years to find the right marketing firm for her brand, including a $16,000 sunk cost on a firm that didn’t manage her accounts in her best interest. “I lost some money, but I’m not out on the street,” she says. “I was young, so there’s time to recoup that money.”
Because she comes off as so calm and soft-spoken — and because of her petite frame — people often think Rodriguez is younger than her 25 years. “It’s hard to be assertive sometimes,” she says.
Meanwhile, she continues to look for ways to grow. With a new marketing firm on deck to help her figure out Instagram’s wizardly ways, she wants to focus on creating content for YouTube — which she knows can translate into sales.
She’s up to about 30,000 YouTube subscribers, but she wants to boost that number up to 100,000. Each new video — she releases one three times each week — ropes in about 200 new subscribers. She earns about $200 per month by monetizing her uploads.
Though she sees the statistics on her social media platforms, sometimes Rodriguez forgets the impact of her work in making fitness accessible and affordable.
“I get so many comments like, ‘You helped me, you inspire me to work out.’ I don’t think I realize how many people have been influenced by my content” since it’s all online, she says. “They’re not all in front of me telling me that.”
But if she keeps her brick-and-mortar gym, she’ll have new faces with whom to share fitness victories. In the meantime, she’ll be online.
Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.